Burnham Mansion stands no more: 'It is surreal in the most awful way'

Burnham Mansion stands no more: 'It is surreal in the most awful way'

CHAMPAIGN — On the final morning, there were no protests.

No one came with signs, no one chanted in dissent, no one held any demonstrations.

Instead, the handful of onlookers who gathered Tuesday to witness the final day of the Burnham Mansion stood quietly, some silently shaking their heads, others preoccupied with taking video on their phones.

The demolition of the 134-year-old home had been the subject of much local debate since November 2016, when taxpayers approved Unit 4's third attempt at a referendum and reality hit home — the historic building stood directly in the path of Central High School's expansion and would need to go, to be replaced by parking spaces.

Some argued for its preservation, given that storied architect Daniel Burnham designed the home and that Champaign notables A.C. Burnham and wife Julia had been its first and intended occupants.

Others noted the burst pipes, water damage and other flaws that, to them, pushed the mansion to a state beyond redemption.

And still others, like PACA volunteer Elyse Harshbarger, hoped to see some sort of middle ground take form. They thought they had found that option in preservationist Chris Enck, a UI architecture grad who suggested putting the mansion on wheels and moving it a block down the street. But financial obstacles proved too daunting, and Enck wasn't able to meet several Unit 4 deadlines, rendering his agreement with the district obsolete.

Over the sound of machines, Harshbarger talked Tuesday of a divided community that had been pursuing "extremes" on either end and what had been lost by not looking for common causes sooner.

"I think a lot of historians and preservationists in town wanted to see it stay right where it is, and the school board just wanted it gone," she said. "I think if the whole middle ground part would have come up in conversation sooner, maybe it would have been done with a better timeline."

Across the street, PACA board member Susan Appel stood on tiptoe and snapped photos with a camera she balanced atop a fence, staying true to preservation instincts to the end.

Nearby, Champaign native Michael Lowery watched, wide-eyed, between video shots on his phone. He said he'd grown up in the neighborhood, running and playing under the shadow of the mansion, and had never expected to see it torn down.

"I did vote 'yes' on the referendum," he said. "But I kind of wish I didn't."

Once looked fondly upon for its ornate, classical design, Tuesday's version of the Burnham Mansion drew plenty more looks — though this time, many were gawking.

Across the street, Maria Zamudio's head peeked out between the doors of CU Church. Like others, she held up a phone and took video. She was at work, cleaning the church, when she looked out and noticed about a quarter of the house missing. She pointed to the machines.

"I'd never seen that," she said. "I just saw the big house and it coming down. Never seen anything like it."

Nearby, transient visitors to the scene resumed their walks, caving to the needs of anxious dogs. Some people parked and watched from the street, one couple getting a formal shoo-ing from workers when they parked too close.

One woman sharply turned a sports car around the corner, got out to take photos, then left. A Champaign schools bus — No. 120 — drove by, and a few students pointed.

Carol Stuff Stanek, who had spent months fighting for the home's salvation, stood somberly in the wake of its destruction. That she had been active in online groups where Burnham Mansion advocates totaled in the hundreds — not even half of whom had come to stand by the house on its last day — did not mystify her.

In fact, she said, she didn't blame them.

"They just couldn't stomach it," she said. "It is surreal in the most awful way."

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